This poem has stuck with me for 15 after first reading it in high school.
Here's what I think it means literally, but it's my guess only. I also don't know the more symbolic meaning.
Stasis in darkness.
[she's in the stable, it's quiet, still, before sunrise]
Then the substanceless blue
[they are out of the barn, already galloping, the morning is dark blue]
Pour of tor and distances.
[play on torpor - she senseless with the speed of it, and the darkness of morning. she's pouring out into the
[her horse? ]
How one we grow,
[rider and mount move together as one being]
Pivot of heels and knees! - The furrow
[she's riding bareback - her heels and knees lock onto her horse to control it/hold on to it]
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,
[the furrows are arched like the neck of her horse. she can't catch it's because she is riding it so she's always
Berries cast dark
[they are riding through berry bushes - thorns]
Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
[black raspberries - when you eat them their juice is like blood in your mouth]
Hauls me through air -
[not her horse apparently, though her horse is hauling her through air]
[is this her thighs and hair or her horse's? presumably her's given the Godiva reference below -riding naked]
Flakes from my heels.
[literary allusion? no idea]
Godiva, I unpeel -
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
[like Godiva, who broke the stringencies of her time by riding naked through the streets. what here is she breaking
free from? or just the exuberance and sense of freedom of riding fast, perhaps naked, on her horse into the sunrise,
through the countryside, feels like peeling away dead hands/constraints]
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
[wheat is like the waves of the ocean when it blows in the wind. the grain at the top of the stalk is like sea foam.
perhaps she feels in the same rhythm as the blowing grain.]
The child's cry
Melts in the wall.
[no idea on this part! ]
Am the arrow,
[on her horse, fast, like an arrow]
The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
[dew dies when the sun rises. she is at one with the drive into sunrise, her horse. they are galloping into the
I find this poem particularily entralling. The ambiguity to the title 'Ariel' is extremely interesting- is it the name of her horse and therefore symbolic of freedom and feminine power and escape? Or in reference to the caged Shakesperian spirit? Both completely opposing views, however Shakespeare's Ariel is finally released to live its own life without the chains its master Prospero had imposed. Is Plath refering to her final release from under male rule of her husband or perhaps life in general?
Ariel was the imprisoned spirit in Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. Condemned to serve an unbending and demanding master (her husband?) , he (it) could only be released once the latter's life's work was complete. Clearly this was a key image for Plath, who throughout her life experienced feelings of imprisonment, suffocation and the inability to release herself from the everyday demands of life.
The poem begins with the illusion of release, 'the substancelss blue/ pour of of tor and distances' (a tor is a hill) , but immediately the focus is jerked inward to the body of her partner, lying beside her, 'pivots of heels and knees'. Despite the closeness of the body she feels that there is something about it that she cannot grasp, 'The brown arc of the neck that I cannot catch'. Intimacy rapidly turns to something ugly and unpleasant 'Nigger-eye/ Berries cast dark/ Hooks.' Despite this she cannot prevent herself gaining pleasure from the experience, 'White Godiva/ I unpeel', 'I foam to wheat' and this experience returns her briefly to the illusion of freedom felt at the begnning of the poem, ' a glitter of seas'. She can even briefly forget the cry of her child which 'Melts in the wall'. But ultimately the experience can only be destructive and she becomes 'the dew that flies/ Suicidal at one with the desire/ Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of the morning.'
Plath's poetry is deceptively simple. It uses simple language and simple, even primitive, forms but fragments them into unusual and sometimes painful combinations often using surprising and occasionally brutal imagery. It has a gut honesty that demands respect, however, and she is perhaps the best of the late 20th century poets.
The key to plath's poem is The Tempest.... her personal setting is the loss of her father.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
from The Tempest
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss'd
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
The watch-dogs bark.
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.